Last week I participated in the 2011 Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing Conference which took place in San Francisco, where I had the honor to give the Ken Kennedy Distinguished Lecture.
The Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing conference is quite unique. It is aptly named, being the most diverse conference in computing anywhere. This year, 53% of the participants were female, 47% male. About 40% were African American, 26% Hispanic, 20% White (non-Hispanic) and 8% Asian. One third were undergraduate students, one third were graduate students and the rest were professionals from industry and academia.
They came from a wide-range of places, including historically-black colleges and hispanic serving institutions as well as places like Berkeley, Georgia Tech, Rice, UCLA, and so on. One of its key objectives is to reassure the students that computing is the right career path for them, help them overcome any potential feelings of isolation by being in an environment with many others just like them, - regardless of their ethnicity or gender, - and increase their dedication to complete their degrees.
“I would like to clarify one point. Bryant York and Valerie Taylor actually started the Tapia Conference rather than I. It was started as a CDC (Coalition to Diversify Computing) activity under the umbrella of ACM. So Tapia is sponsored by CDC and ACM. Bryant York told me that he wanted to start a diversity in computing conference and wanted to name it after me. I first told him no, and that he should name it after an African American. He answered that he thought about that, but then concluded that he wanted the conference to target both African American and Hispanic American researchers and students in computing disciplines, and no one's name could do that better than mine. He wrote me such a beautiful letter that I immediately said yes, do it. I am glad that I did and am very proud that the Tapia Conference reflects the colors of the rainbow, with a particular emphasis on the underrepresented groups of black and brown.”
Richard Tapia is a mathematician and professor in the Department of Computational and Applied Math at Rice University. He was born in the barrios of Los Angeles to parents who separately emigrated from Mexico as teenagers in search of educational opportunities. He is the first in his family to attend college, and went on to receive BA, MA and PhD degrees from UCLA. He has been in the faculty at Rice University since 1970.
Tapia has received many honors through his long professional career, among them being the first Hispanic elected to the National Academy of Engineering. His career has also been dedicated to helping members of underrepresented groups within the computing and math fields. At Rice, he has directed or co-directed more underrepresented minority and women doctoral candidates in science and engineering than anyone else in the country. The Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing conference is a natural outgrowth of his life’s work.
In 2007, Tapia established the Ken Kennedy Distinguished Lecture within the conference to honor the memory of eminent computer scientist and Rice University professor Ken Kennedy, who died earlier that year of pancreatic cancer. I had known Ken for over thirty years, so it was a particularly honor for me to give this year’s Kennedy Distinguished Lecture.
I first met Ken when he spent his sabbatical in 1978-79 at the IBM’s Thomas J Watson Research Lab, where I was a research staff member in the computer sciences department.. We became friends, a friendship that continued until his untimely death at the age of 61.
Ken was a pioneer in the development of compilers for high performance computer systems. He led the development of a number of Fortran compilers for advanced vector supercomputers. In the early 1990s he was also the leader of the High Performance Fortran efforts to automatically compile programs for parallel supercomputers.
Writing programs for supercomputers based on vector and parallel architectures is very cumbersome. Ken Kennedy’s compiler achievements made it possible for many more programmers to write supercomputer applications and was a major factor in the emergence of the commercial supercomputer industry in the 1980s. He published over 200 articles and book chapters, gave numerous conference presentations, and received a number of awards throughout his career.
Ken was also very active in university, professional and policy matters. He founded the Computer Sciences department at Rice University in 1984 and became its first chairman. In 1997, he became co-chair of the President’s IT Advisory Committee (PITAC). I served with Ken in PITAC, and in 1999 followed him as PITAC co-chair.
My Kennedy Distinguished Lecture was titled The changing nature of research and innovation in the 21st century. I told the largely student audience that I wanted to raise the question whether computing was still a good career choice for them to make, by examining the many new kinds of IT and IT-based application jobs that were being created as a result of the digital technology revolution that continues to rage all around us.
I talked about the application of computing and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) to the service economy, the largest portion of the economy in the world especially in the US, the UK and other developed nations.
I talked about the recent new smart applications being developed around the world leveraging the advent of smart mobile devices and sensors, broadband wireless networks and cloud computing. I focused particularly on the development of smarter cities solutions to help us deal with the rapid urbanization of the planet.
Finally, I talked about the huge challenges in systems thinking needed to help us deal with the increasingly complex digital systems we are developing. It seems that things around us are getting more difficult to understand and manage. We have wonderful technologies and tools - advanced analytics systems like IBM’s Watson, increasingly powerful supercomputers for highly sophisticated simulation and modeling, and new social media platforms to help bring talented people together from all over the world so they can collectively address and solve the most complex problems we face.
But, we need breakthrough innovation in how to best apply all the technologies, tools, platforms, information and models we now have at our disposal, to help us anticipate and deal with potentially catastrophic improbable events. Such high-impact, hard-to-predict Black Swan events are rarely supposed to happen, but seem to be now occurring with increasing frequency all around us.
Is computing still a good career choice? As I told the students in the audience in my concluding remarks, it is hard for me to imagine a more exciting, challenging and important discipline in the decades ahead. In my opinion, they are making an excellent career choice.